A culinary pilgrimage along the Way of St James
This Asturian town on the northern coast of Spain is home to many seafood restaurants. (Matt Munro)
For more than a thousand years the wildly beautiful Spanish north was a fabled and sacred land, a focal point of European Christendom. Over the centuries, millions of Christian pilgrims have traversed the harsh landscape of Asturias and Galica, driven by a sense of holy mission to Santiago de Compostela and the tomb and shrine of the apostle St James.
El Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St James, has never been one route but a web of interconnecting pathways and mule tracks criss-crossing northern Spain, running through its more mountainous areas and along its jagged coastline – but always with a common destination of Santiago de Compostela. In the past, the most devout pilgrims would choose the most challenging route; mountain tracks were particularly favoured because they were held to literally take the traveller closer to God.
I have come to follow in their footsteps, but with a different purpose: mine is to be no arduous spiritual odyssey, instead a pilgrimage devoted to the pleasures of the northern Spanish kitchen and of the terrain from which its dishes originate. What I am really after, I suppose, is a taste of history: the cuisine of the mountains has changed little over the centuries, so here you walk the ancient pilgrims’ trail and also eat much the same food as they would have done.
Locals claim that the territory of Asturias is the one and only true Spain, since it was the only part of the country that resisted Moorish occupation after the Islamic conquest of the eighth century. The bastion of its long-guarded independence is the mountain range known as Picos de Europa (the Peaks of Europe), a vast natural barrier sheltering the region from the south. Its peaks once guarded Asturias from the forces of Abd al-Rahman and his descendants, powerful invaders from Damascus whose rule stopped short of this inaccessible and remote area. Nowadays, the Picos form one of Europe’s most unspoiled natural parks; this was in fact Spain’s very first nature reserve, established in 1918 and modelled on Yellowstone National Park.
At the foot of the range, by the little village of Poncebos, I begin a three-hour ascent of the gorge along a narrow scree trail that winds vertiginously up its eastern flank. This takes me to Bulnes, a ramshackle village that was once a simple shepherds’ hamlet but now contains a handful of sidrerías (cider houses) set by the banks of the river. At these modest establishments I do the rounds, sampling different dishes (a sidrería crawl) to recuperate from the first stage of my pilgrimage.
First comes cecina de buey – thin slices of smoked ox, a little like Italian bresaola but with a resinous aftertaste – followed by a hearty dark stew laced with bitter green kale and tender chunks of gamey, almost-black meat – stewed cabrito (kid goat), no less. Next is a plate of probably Spain’s most famous blue cheese, cabrales. To soften its pungent assault, it is served with a dollop of thick mountain honey. The Spanish often marry cheese to something sweet. ‘Miel y queso sabe a beso’, as the saying goes: ‘Honey and cheese taste like a kiss’.
Having washed down the food with lashings of the local cider – flat, cloudy, with an appley tang and deceptive kick – I walk back down the mountain. On the lower slopes, three elderly gentlemen are sharing a large floppy skin full of red wine. They offer me a slug or two for the road – it’s rather like trying to drink from a set of bagpipes. We wander together back towards Poncebos.